How Jayalalithaa inched her way to the top (Book Review)

Title: Amma; Jayalalithaa’s journey from Movie Star to Political Queen; Author: Vaasanthi; Publisher: Juggernaut; Pages: 175; Price: Rs 299

When she entered Tamil cinema, she was another struggling actress. But luck – and the legendary MGR’s blessings – were on her side. Once she was recognized as a cine star, Jayalalithaa plunged into politics – with just one benefactor in the whole of Tamil Nadu. And after MGR died, she emerged out of his shadows to consolidate herself in a male domain and became the first woman chief minister of Tamil Nadu, that too a Brahmin woman at the helm of a Dravidian party!

This is probably the most exhaustive life story of Jayalalithaa ever published, at least in English. For one who doesn’t allow intrusions into her private life, weaving together the biography would not have been easy for Vaasanthi, an accomplished Tamil writer and author. But vital gaps remain.

Vaasanthi first met Jayalalithaa in 1984 in Delhi, where the former lived and where the latter had found a place after MGR put her in the Rajya Sabha. “The first thing that struck me was her simple and elegant attire and the fact that she wore no make-up. One could hardly believe that she had once been the most sought after glamour queen of the South Indian film world.”

Yet, here was a young woman who was sure of herself, even if that confidence in part came from her controversial proximity to MGR, the demi God.

Having lost her father at a very young age, Ammu – as she was then known – was raised by her mother, an actress in her own right. And although studious and with dreams of becoming a doctor or lawyer, destiny took her to the film world anyway. Her ‘arangetram’ took place when she was barely 12 – the chief guest being Shivaji Ganesan, the most talented actor then.

Her first movie was “Aayiraththil Oruvan” with MGR. It was a runaway success. MGR and Jayalalithaa would soon become the most popular pair – he in his early 50s and she in her teens. And producer R.M. Veerappan or RMV, the film producer, was determined to break this relationship. Jayalalithaa’s reel-to-real story had begun.

Vaasanthi takes readers along the numerous ups and downs Jayalalithaa faced – and overcame – as she made her switch to politics, her envy vis-à-vis MGR’s wife Janaki, her early years as a speaker, MGR’s love-hate relationship with her, the humiliation she bore after MGR died, how Janaki conceded that Jayalalithaa was the true inheritor of the MGR legacy, and how finally Jayalalithaa emerged as the undisputed queen of the AIADMK as well as Tamil Nadu politics.

It has not been a bed of roses even after reaching the top. Charges of corruption and nepotism have constantly pursued her. She has been accused of being intolerant of criticism. And though many credit her with administrative acumen, the quality was missing when unprecedented floods ravaged Chennai. A once shy girl, who complained about the “looks” men gave her when she went to film studios, eventually saw male politicians fall at her feet!

But Vaasanthi feels Amma doesn’t realize how Tamil Nadu has changed since she first entered politics, how there is a huge social churning going on among the youth, and how new voices are rising in Tamil Nadu against the two main Dravidian parties. Jayalalithaa may have returned to power in a most unexpected manner in 2016 but she has many more hurdles to cross.



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